Atlas Shrugged and the Morality of Egoism
A lot of people have been taught to believe that self-interest or selfishness is inherently evil. They believe that people who focus on their self-interest are greedy, ambitious, and proud. Well, they’re so right with that description except that I strongly disagree with their evaluation. The fact is, there is no moral evaluation of the word self-interest, greed, or selfishness in the English dictionary. Any standard English dictionary does not state whether self-interest, selfishness, or greed is good or evil. However, most people think this attribute or morality is associated with anything that is evil, vile, wicked, vicious, devilish, etc.
In the words of Ayn Rand, “In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil, the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 5)
The standard definition of self-interest is “concern with one’s own interest.” Since the word’s dictionary definition has no moral evaluation, it certainly does not inform us whether concern with one’s own welfare or interest is good or evil. It also does not tell us what constitutes man’s actual welfare or interests. According to Ayn Rand, “it is the task of ethics to answer such questions.”
One of Ayn Rand’s best, if not the best, fiction works is her bestselling novel Atlas Shrugged. It is through this more than 1000-page doorstop where Ayn Rand introduced the complex structure of her entire philosophy, from metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and even aesthetics. But Atlas Shrugged is not just a novel; it is actually a business and philosophical book that defends free market capitalism on moral grounds. Yes, Ayn Rand was the first philosopher and advocate of reason who defended this political and economic system on ethical grounds. She believed that if one is to defend capitalism, one must know how to assert and explain that this system is the only moral and practical political system ever devised for man.
In his compelling article titled “Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism”, Craig Biddle argued that Atlas Shrugged is not just “a hymn to capitalism and the moral foundations on which it depends”, but a must-read for those who want to properly live on earth as a human being.
The following is an excerpt of Biddle’s article:
“Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost a brilliant suspense story about a man who said he would stop the motor of the world and did. But the book is much more than a great novel. Integrated into the story is a revolutionary philosophy—a philosophy not for pie-in-the-sky debates or academic word games or preparing for an “afterlife,” but for understanding reality, achieving values, and living on earth.”
“Rand’s philosophy, which she named Objectivism, includes a view of the nature of reality, of man’s means of knowledge, of man’s nature and means of survival, of a proper morality, of a proper social system, and of the nature and value of art. It is a comprehensive philosophy, which, after writing Atlas Shrugged, Rand elaborated in several nonfiction books. But it all came together initially in Atlas, in which Rand dramatized her philosophy—along with the ideas that oppose it.
“Life requires that we regularly forgo lesser values for the sake of greater ones. But these are gains, not sacrifices. A sacrifice consists in giving up something that is more important for the sake of something that is less important; thus, it results in a net loss.
“Altruism, the morality of self-sacrifice, is the morality of personal loss—and it does not countenance personal gain. This is not a caricature of altruism; it is the essence of the morality. As arch-altruist Peter Singer (the famed utilitarian philosopher at Princeton University) explains, “to the extent that [people] are motivated by the prospect of obtaining a reward or avoiding a punishment, they are not acting altruistically. . . .”7 Arch-altruist Thomas Nagel (a philosophy professor at New York University) concurs: Altruism entails “a willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives”—“ulterior motives” meaning, of course, personal gains.8
“To understand the difference between egoistic action and altruistic action, we must grasp the difference between a trade and a sacrifice—between a gain and a loss—and we must not allow altruists to blur this distinction in our mind. Egoism, as we will see, calls for personal gains. Altruism, as we have seen, calls for personal losses.
“Now, despite its destructive nature, altruism is accepted to some extent by almost everyone today. Of course, no one upholds it consistently—at least not for long. Rather, most people accept it as true—and then cheat on it.
“All the major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—advocate altruism; their holy books demand it. All so-called “secular humanist” philosophies—utilitarianism, postmodernism, egalitarianism—call for altruism as well. (Note that “secular humanists” do not call themselves “secular egoists” or “secular individualists.”)
““Alter” is Latin for “other”; “altruism” means “other-ism”; it holds that you should sacrifice for others. From the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim points of view, the significant “others” are “God” and “the poor”; in the Old Testament, for instance, God says: “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). From the utilitarian point of view, the “other” is “everyone in general”; the utilitarian principle is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” From the postmodern and egalitarian points of view, the “other” is anyone with less wealth or opportunity than you have; in other words, the better off you are, the more you should sacrifice for others—the worse off you are, the more others should sacrifice for you.
“Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Everyone believes it is the moral thing to do. And no philosopher has been willing to challenge this idea.”